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Chaplin’s classics, with extras from the archives

Times Staff Writer

Cinema lore is filled with stories about how Charlie Chaplin fiddled with and agonized over his films. Owner of his own studio and hardly in need of money, he’d refine his films, sometimes for months or even years, until he was satisfied.

One great byproduct of the DVD revolution has been the unearthing and wide distribution of visuals and commentaries from the early days of film. Consider the indelible final scene in the 1936 Chaplin classic “Modern Times,” when the Little Tramp and the Gamin (Paulette Goddard) journey down a road together in the hope of a better life. But that poignant image wasn’t the original ending to the film. Chaplin actually envisioned Goddard’s homeless but feisty heroine becoming a nun.

Fortunately, he abandoned that rather bizarre idea. But several photos from the discarded ending are featured in the fabulous new double-disc DVD of “Modern Times” (Warner, $40), released earlier this week.

Besides “Modern Times,” Warner has unveiled exquisite, newly restored transfers of Chaplin’s 1925 masterwork, “The Gold Rush”; “The Great Dictator” (1940), his first talkie; and the last film he made in America, “Limelight” (1952).

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“We put in everything we had [in the archives], so they would be the definitive DVDs,” says Josephine Chaplin, the third of Chaplin’s eight children he had with his fourth wife, Oona. “We feel that we have done everything we could do so that my father’s work is left to posterity in the best conditions possible.”

Besides the gorgeous transfers digitally mastered at the Bologna Cinematheque in Italy, the double discs include terrific new documentaries about the making of the films that also offer insights from other directors. Oscar-winner Bernardo Bertolucci, for example, discusses the impact of “Limelight,” Chaplin’s sentimental drama about an aging, washed-up clown and a young ballerina (Claire Bloom). “I don’t cry often, but here my tears flow,” Bertolucci confesses in the “Limelight” documentary about his reaction to the film’s four-hankie denouement.

Director Idrissa Ouedrago, from the nation of Burkina Faso, discusses “The Gold Rush,” Chaplin’s enchanting comedy that finds the Little Tramp prospecting for gold in the Yukon, and Belgian filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne examine his industrial-age satire, “Modern Times.”

The “Great Dictator” DVD features Kevin Brownlow’s intriguing documentary, “The Tramp and the Dictator,” which aired last fall on Turner Classic Movies, that examines Chaplin’s skewering of Hitler in his film and the reaction of the German dictator to Chaplin and the ruthless satire.

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The set also includes hundreds of rare photographs, home movies, excerpts from Chaplin’s shorts and introductions by Chaplin biographer David Robinson. The “Limelight” DVD features his entire Oscar-winning score as well as Chaplin reading excerpts from his novel on which he based the film, and a lengthy deleted scene.

The “Modern Times” disc features a wonderfully funny deleted scene and a karaoke version of the nonsense song he performs near the end of the film, the first time his voice was heard on one of his films. “Modern Times” is considered Chaplin’s last silent -- although there is music and sound effects -- and was the last appearance of the Little Tramp.

And “The Gold Rush” set includes his original 1925 silent version as well as Chaplin’s re-edited 1942 version for which he added a musical score and narration.

These four restored films and their respective documentaries will also air Tuesday on cable’s Turner Classic Movies, beginning at 5 p.m.

And that’s only the beginning of the Chaplin juggernaut. UCLA Film & Television Archive will screen the restored versions of these four films sometime this fall. And early next year, Warner Home Video will release the DVDs of Chaplin’s First National silents from the late teens and early ‘20s, as well as 1921’s “The Kid,” 1923’s “A Woman of Paris,” 1928’s “The Circus,” 1931’s “City Lights,” 1947’s “Monsieur Verdoux,” 1957’s “The King of New York” and Richard Schickel’s new documentary, “Charlie: The Life and Art of Charlie Chaplin,” which premiered in May at the Cannes Film Festival.

Chaplin, who died in 1977 at the age of 88, had always owned his own films from the late teens through “The King of New York.” They were released through United Artists, of which he was one of the founders (along with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith).

“Chaplin sold his interest in United Artists in 1952 and even though he was no longer an owner of the company, UA did the re-releasing of them,” notes George Feltenstein, Warner’s senior vice president of classic catalog. “He would basically reissue his films every seven years, like Disney did. He wanted the new generation to be exposed to them. The most recent theatrical reissues were in 1971. They were released to theaters on a rather large scale and with a big success. That was really the last hurrah for Chaplin.”

From 1971 to 2001, the films were out of the Chaplin family hands. “We had no approval or decision-making,” Josephine Chaplin says. Though the movies have been released on video, laser and on DVD -- though the transfers pale in comparison to these releases -- and revival theaters, they had generally been out of circulation in America for years.

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Chaplin fell from grace with many film scholars who take umbrage with his tendency toward broad emotions, and prefer the stoicism and physicality of his peer Buster Keaton.

“He’s not known in America, not much anyway,” laments Chaplin, who is not sure why the licensor didn’t do more with her father’s films here. “It’s a shame. We just had to wait until the contract ended in 2001.”

The Chaplin family picked the French group MK2 to distribute the films theatrically and produce the DVDs.

“They needed a distribution partner for home video,” says Feltenstein. “Warner Home Video has the world’s largest film library and we have an international presence as a video company.... We can’t take credit for all the wonderful extras and all the things they did: MK2 produced everything. But we certainly have been involved all along the way. We gave them money. These are being released all over the world.”

Feltenstein, who originally saw these movies as a child back in 1971, says he’s really “staggered by the beauty” of the films. “The most important thing is the person who isn’t familiar with Chaplin; they think Charlie Chaplin, old movies, silent movies. They think they are bad. They have no idea what the quality of these films really are.”

And because these films now look as close as possible to when they were originally released, the “uneducated viewer will make the leap of faith and give the films a chance,” Feltenstein says.

“When they look and sound this way, you get a good shot at capturing the viewer and once they start watching, they fall in love.”

“They are not only historically interesting or intelligently made, they are funny,” adds Josephine Chaplin, who made her film debut as a 3-year-old in “Limelight.”

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Feltenstein pooh-poohs the criticism that Chaplin’s films are too mawkish and sentimental for today’s audiences.

“When I hear that, that tells me they haven’t seen the films,” he says. “They will base their feelings having seen the Mutual and Essanay shorts, which are in the public domain and distributed everywhere (Chaplin’s films made in the mid-teens will be released Tuesday on DVD from Image, in a set selling for $100). Those films don’t reflect Chaplin’s real gifts and talents. He hadn’t really honed his craft as a sophisticated filmmaker yet. ‘The Kid’ was the turning point. With ‘The Kid’ you get to see the multi-layered star, director, performer and writer -- an artist beyond description. The films are really quite powerful.”


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